John Seale knows how to tell a story on screen using images — one reason he is at the top of the world's cinematography profession. More than that, in person he also knows how to hook you into a story, engaging you with character voices and acting out the story as if he were a director blocking a scene, all the while leading you towards some self-effacing punch line.
This approach set the tone for a highly entertaining evening for NZCS members and friends at the Horse and Trap in Auckland during March.
The whole effect was reinforced by the deadpan David Burr, who, when he was not trading punch lines with Seale, explained technical details.
Both were in New Zealand courtesy of Panavision to talk exclusively to NZCS about their work on Mad Max: Fury Road due for release in May. Seale was DP on the movie and Burr — whose connection with New Zealand stretches back to focus pulling on Sleeping Dogs — earned the second unit DP credit.
The movie, like the earlier movies in the franchise, was directed by George Miller who Seale describes as both a single minded film maker and one of the nicest people you could ever meet.
Seale became the DP on the production after years of preparatory work by Dean Semler, who had a programme of testing the 3D cameras that were being developed for the movie according to criteria set by Miller.
It was an ambitious goal, since the 3D camera rig had to be small enough to go through the windows of the truck where a lot of the action takes place. The main truck is just one of the extraordinary vehicles in the movie. (See www.madmaxmovie.com)
On top of that, the harsh desert location and shooting conditions required the cameras had to be waterproof and dust proof. Seale explains a raft of cameras would be needed because Miller did not want to be delayed by a simple lens change which, on a 3D rig, results in a time consuming optical realignment.
Heat was also a design issue. All digital cameras with high data rates and on-board processing generate a lot of heat which intensifies as processors are packed into a compact chassis. In this case an active cooling system was required adding more complexity to the system by the time Seale got the call inviting him to shoot the movie.
"I had worked with George in Pittsburgh on Lorenzo's Oil, and Andrew Lesnie was not available," he jokes, recalling the moment with a self-depreciating grin.
More seriously, he says a movie like this is a huge commitment.
"You are theirs for two years," he says, "And I had about eight hours to think about it.
"For starters it was the first digital film that I had ever done and it was at short notice. I had been reading little bits here and there, but suddenly it was all on."
But for Seale, equipment and techniques are secondary considerations in a decision like this.
"George Miller is a lovely man, he's very determined and he is a consummate film maker. That is who you love working with, it does not matter how they get there."
Once committed to a production, Seale accepts the parameters of the job and works within them, a process he calls locking your brain down.
He says the initial approach to shooting Mad Max: Fury Road was based on a single camera philosophy - the idea that somewhere on the set is a single perfect spot for the camera to record that scene. It's an idea that stretches back to Polanski, Kubrick and others, but not one Seale was used to.
"At that stage I had come out of a few action movies, and even emotional movies, where I just threw in every camera I could lay my hands on. The power of editing is such that if you put six cameras in and make it work, the editor loves you."
He believes giving the editors the option to cut on finer points of performance gives them flexibility and power. Actors too, thank him for it. At the same time, he admits there is a price to pay in lighting compromises for multi-camera shooting, but it is a price he believes it is worth it.
"So there I was, thinking maybe six or eight cameras, and George is thinking one," he says. "You accept that. That is the challenge - let's go. And it's on this 3D behemoth. And you start to lock down."
Once into the testing, Seale found the contrast range between the interiors and the harsh desert exteriors a challenge for the cameras. At the same time he was limited in balancing the windows because of action that would take place through the window frames.
He says all this culminated in a Monday morning production meeting when Miller unexpectedly announced a switch to 2D shooting.
"It floored everybody; it was as quick and as clean as that. And he turned to me and said 'Johnny what camera are you going to use?'.
"I said: 'Well George, I am a Panavision man, and I'll give them a ring in the next 20 minutes.' That is how we ended up swinging over to Alexas [with Primos]," he grins again, knowing that some two year later, he can safely retell this pivotal decision as if it were some lighthearted banter.
"We found the Alexa Plus a nice big camera, but they also had the Alexa M's [split head and recorder version]. Of course we loved the idea of those straight away."
The switch to 2D shooting was a major shift in approach, making the shoot much more straightforward, but loading post-production with a 2D to 3D conversion.
"We made no consideration for 3D post at all during our 2D shoot," he says, pointing out with relish that this might be a shock to some other 3D cinematographers.
"I had the 11-1 zoom on what I called the paparazzi camera," he recalls, referring his like of operating. "I was always poking in, getting little close ups and reactions that I thought would help the editor. I was in at 250-270 mm. The 3D books I read said don't go longer than 50 mm, but I was at the longer end of that thing all the time."
He adds he didn't worry about the foreground in frame — another traditional caution with 3D.
"I didn't think about it for five months and we slept like logs," he says, his smile emerging again. "As the visual effects boys said earlier this year, every week new software comes out that helps you make 3D in post."
"We put glasses on and ran some scenes and it looked fantastic," adds David Burr, who also reveals the extent to which the single cameraapproach was eroded in practice.
"We had a bunch of little cameras aside from the Alexa Ms. John tested Canon 5Ds and ran them past the visual effects department. While the quality obviously wasn't up to that of an Alexas, the visual effects department said we could use them.
"So we would be all over the vehicles with handheld Canons. We'd have wide angle lenses close to actors, and we were bumping around and trying to hang on while the thing was belting in across the desert.
"When you're in there so close to the actors or stunt guys with wide lenses, the images have a certain energy but the camera operators were often in shot. Initially we were told 'Don't worry about that we will paint you out.' Well, painting us out after a month or six weeks tended to get a bit expensive. So that style of photography went out the window and was replaced by the Edge arm, which could get to most of the positions we were able to get to when we were strapped to the vehicles."
"George's one camera deal could go away a little bit because I pressured him a lot all the time," adds Seale, "and he said 'I don't think we will need them, but put them in'. I think when he got into editing a year later, he found there was some quite valuable stuff it in there."
While Seale earned flexibility in this approach, he says Miller was adamant about other creative choices, defying convention along the way ...
The story continues in NZCS newsletter #7. In the meantime Seale has a tip about Mad Max: Fury Road: "Sometimes when you see a trailer you have seen the whole film, but with this one you have not," he says.
courtesy by NZSC